Defense attorney safeguards constitutional rights for all

By Brett DeGroff
Legal News

George Zulakis has a soft spot for the underdog.

As a child of Greek immigrants growing up in Cedar Rapids, Ia., Zulakis got more than his share of mistreatment on account of his ethnic background. But the first story that springs to Zulakis’ mind from that time has nothing to do with him.

“There was this Lebanese kid, and he and I had the darkest complexions in school,” Zulakis said. “He was a Muslim, but everyone had to say the Lord’s Prayer. I remember watching him while everyone said the prayer and seeing how uncomfortable it made him.

“It just seemed wrong to me to make anyone feel that bad.”

Years later, when Zulakis arrived at law school, he immediately knew he wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. Zulakis remembers the words of one of his instructors, Fred Abood, who Zulakis now describes as one of his legal heroes.

“He said criminal defense attorneys are the last bastion between the state and the individual,” Zulakis said.

Today, Zulakis’ practice focuses on defending young people, coordinating their defense with rehabilitation of drug or alcohol problems, and moving them on in their lives without a criminal record. But over his 34 years of practice, Zulakis has handled all sorts of criminal matters including a murder trial that ended in a jury acquittal for his client.

“He was a young man, struggling in life with a poor family and an absent father,” Zulakis said. “He had a tough row to hoe, but he wasn’t a bad person.”

The client was drunk and was hitchhiking when he was picked up by a man on a motorcycle who mistook the client for a prostitute. Zulakis said that after the motorcyclist tried to sexually assault his client, a struggle ensued and the client struck the motorcyclist with his helmet, killing him. Zulakis was able to persuade a jury his client acted in self-defense, and he was acquitted.

The reality of criminal defense, however, is that not every client is innocent. Even in those cases, Zulakis believes that criminal defense attorneys provide a critical societal function.

“Each client represents a package of rights,” Zulakis said. “What is important is to make sure that every defendant gets a fair trial, and the process is the same every time.
“I tell juries they can’t assume the Constitution will protect a defendant, because without a jury doing their job, the words of the Constitution have no meaning.”

Protecting individuals has always been the focus of Zulakis’ practice. After two short stints working for other lawyers, Zulakis and his wife, Laura Baird, formed their own firm, Baird and Zulakis, in 1980. Although the firm practices across mid-Michigan, the firm relocated to Okemos so the couple’s children could attend a school with a large degree of diversity. After growing up in the almost uniformly Northern European Cedar Rapids of the 1950s, Zulakis wanted his children to have a different experience.

Zulakis has worked to involve the local bar with the greater community over the years, serving a term as the president of the Ingham County Bar Association, and focusing on the Ingham County Bar Foundation that reaches out to local charitable causes.

Zulakis and Baird practiced together until Judge Baird was elected to the Ingham County Circuit Court in 2000. Judge Baird’s practice focused on plaintiff-side medical malpractice cases. But, to Zulakis, the focus of their practices was the same – protecting individuals against systems. Working against the system can be a difficult task.

“It’s not an easy job to stand up and defend an individual when you have all the resources of the police, the prosecutor and even the media lined up against you,” Zulakis said. “Even the client may not like you.

“But, each case is a test of the system,” Zulakis said. “We have to make it work. Otherwise, our individual rights will disappear.”